|Thomas Bernhard: the making of
by Gitta Honegger
Semantic sorcery from the wizard of Austria
25 February 2002
In the 1990s, following the end of the Cold War, a current of patricide (and matricide) came to the fore in German letters. German unification, far from promoting self-confidence, produced self-doubt and self-criticism. No one wanted to read the supposedly difficult authors of the recent past, it was claimed. In the new post-Communist world, it was Anglo-Saxon literary models that promised success, readership, translations.
With just a little more hindsight, the decades from the 1950s to the 1980s in German-language writing appear as one of the more fruitful periods of European literature. Authors as diverse as Arno Schmidt, Uwe Jonson, Ingeborg Bachmann and Max Frisch are among the leading writers of that time. Others, such as Günter Grass and Christa Wolf, seem to have left their best work behind them; but others still, such as Alexander Kluge and Peter Handke, continue to produce outstanding writing. That many of these authors are unknown on this side of the Channel is British culture's loss.
In German, perhaps the greatest influence over younger writers is exercised by the Austrian Thomas Bernhard (1931-1989). Sometimes it seems as if every other new German-language novel is in thrall to Bernhard's breathless, repetitive, spiralling sentences. Bernhard is not quite so unfamiliar in English today. Nearly all his longer prose works have been translated, and his plays are occasionally performed in London. It is even possible to detect a Bernhardian inflection in a few English authors. Good reasons, it might be hoped, to welcome "the first comprehensive biography of Bernhard in English".
Sadly, although the author, an Austrian-born American academic, has been industrious in researching Bernhard's life and works, her book cannot be recommended to anyone looking to understand Bernhard's importance. The bad news starts on page two. Bernhard was passionate about music, particularly opera. Honegger writes that "the operatic archetypes would appear in a dense web of signifying chains sliding across the topography of his work; the operatic dramaturgy would provide the underpinning of his philosophical metatheatre". A couple of pages later, she suggests that in Salzburg lie "the archaeological, anthropological and political roots of Bernhard's theatricalised ontology and etiology of Austria's cultural pathology". This is bad writing, not least because it is straining for a certain kind of academic credibility. Theorists such as Irigaray, Althusser and Foucault are deployed, not always to enlightening effect.
This is not the only problem. The appeal to high theory is combined with an inattention to historical accuracy exacerbated by sloppy prose; a politician is made an honorary commander in the French Foreign Legion rather than the Légion d'Honneur, a famous actor is described as a madonna rather than a prima donna. Names are misspelt, and Honegger has a habit of claiming as exclusively Austrian turns of phrase or historical figures that are part of a common German-speaking heritage. It's a not uncommon complaint, but justified here: why was the book not edited?
There is a more modest and useful biography struggling to get out from under the pretention and sloppiness. Honegger has some interesting things to say about family and friends, about Bernhard's sexuality, about influences from Brecht and Beckett to Schopenhauer and Wittgenstein. She is somewhat less informative about prose antecedents than theatrical ones, although this is legitimate given her emphasis on the performance aspect of his writing. As she notes, "All his works, not just his plays, evoke the immediacy of the speaking voice."
Still, the reader who knows Bernhard is probably already hooked and does not need this book. Anyone who is curious about him should turn to the outrageous comedy of his pseudo-memoir, Wittgenstein's Nephew.